Excerpt

"If Found Please Return to Abigail Serna 158 3/4 E MLK Blvd"

Désirée Zamorano

The following is the short story “If Found Please Return to Abigail Serna 158 3/4 E MLK Blvd” by Désirée Zamorano, included in the new anthology South Central Noir, edited by Gary Phillips. Zamorano's story tells a bleak account of life during the pandemic for a struggling family, and asks the hardest question about writing of all: does putting words to paper make things feel better, or worse?

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard

My school counselor said that I have to do this. She said she wouldn’t, ever, read what I wrote. She added: not that she didn’t want to know what was going on in my head, it was just rude to assume someone could read the words you had just written. She would need my permission.

Her name is Ms. Cifuentes and she’s glaring at the two boys in the back who are mumbling to each other. I know why I’m here, but I’m not sure why they are.

Ms. Cifuentes seems to always have a bunch of us come see her, though we’re not in her office, which is tiny. Today we’re in an area of the cafeteria not far from where a bunch of other kids are messing around in the after-school program. That’s where kids pretend to work on their homework and people pretend to help them. What is real are the snacks that are handed out. I’ve tried to sign up a couple of times for that, but they looked me up and said my grades were too good for that.

Too good for free apples and string cheese? What’s up with that?

I am not thinking about my grades right now. I’m thinking about Ms. Cifuentes. She’s old, not as old as my mom, but she must be thirty at least. She wears black plastic glass frames that end up on the tip of her nose. She could be super pretty, if she wore makeup. If I had a face like that I’d fill in my eyebrows, do a cat’s-eye and a cherry lip.

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It’s almost like she doesn’t care. That worries me in adults. What made them stop caring?

My problem, and this isn’t official, is that I care too much. That’s not word for word what Ms. C said, but it does have something to do with why I’m here, scrawling my pencil across pages in a cheap composition book.

Everything here at the Accelerated School is cheap. When I was a kid—I mean, when I was younger—I knew LA had a lot of rich people, so why weren’t there any rich people in our school? And why was our elementary school so dang poor we had busted swings and shit that nobody was allowed on so it was roped off, which posed a whole new set of challenges?

It wasn’t until I got older that I found out the rich have their own schools. Wow. What a setup, right? I found this out recently, when our pathetic, bony, no-talent volleyball team, of which I am a member, set off with our PE teacher, Mrs. Jones, in her scuffed and smelly minivan, the kind of minivan Carmela’s mom drives. We teased her about it being so old. Carmela just sniffed at us, “At least she has a car, she’s not taking the bus!” That shut us up cuz all our moms take the bus.

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Although we all felt it was rude of Carmela to point that out.

In any case, we drove through hills that were greener than anything I’d seen before. Why was our neighborhood so parched and dry? Even in elementary there was only concrete and maybe a little sand underneath the roped-off swings.

You might think I’d seen LA on TV, and wealthy places and green hills, but we all know just because something’s on TV or in the movies doesn’t make it real. Fast & Furious, right? My mom loves those films and it just makes me laugh.

We drove up through all these green hills with a view of the beach. Straight up. Green hills, beach, blue skies. The most expensive houses I’d ever seen in real life, imagine all the expensive stuff inside, and not one of them had bars on the windows. Where I’m from all of our windows have bars. I realized I was in a completely different part of the world. Even the air smelled better.

We shuffled out of Mrs. Jones’s beat-up van and went to a school gym where the floor had been waxed and polished so hard it was glowing. The walls looked freshly painted. There weren’t a lot of people in the stands, something I should have been grateful for, but I could see the stands looked brand new. This gym didn’t stink of cafeteria food and sweat and yelling teachers. This gym smelled of money. And I was gagging on it.

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Right across the net from us were four girls who looked like Amazons in training, and eight more standing by for their time at the net. I swear to God each of them was two heads taller than Annette, our captain, our star, our tallest member.

The weird thing was, after we lost game after game after game, I don’t think any one of us felt humiliated.

The weird thing was, after we lost game after game after game, I don’t think any one of us felt humiliated. Nah, a volleyball game against rich girls in the most beautiful school we’d ever been to? Nah. We, or at least I, realized we lived in a parallel universe. An entire world lived not too far away, somewhere bright and shiny.

After the game Mrs. Jones pulled into a beach parking lot and set us off down the beach. She’d even packed Subway sandwiches and chips and drinks in a cooler. I didn’t think about it until right now, writing it down, but it probably cost her something. I hope I said thank you. Now I’m worried that I didn’t.

Which, full circle, the writing down is what I’m supposed to be doing here, and not the overthinking. Ms. Cifuentes gave me a stern talk, said that I was overthinking things, and overthinking was gonna freeze me and make me unhappy.

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I have a theory that plenty of other things make me unhappy, but I didn’t want to disagree with Ms. Cifuentes and risk her not talking to me.

She told me to write down everything that I was overthinking, fifteen minutes a day, and somehow, like magic (she didn’t say that, I’m drawing an inference, as my English teacher, Mrs. Banks, would say), all those things I worried about, all those things that went round and round in my head, would disappear.

That seems so laughable I might even give it a try. But the things going round and round in my head aren’t anything that I just put down here. Well, at least my fifteen minutes are up!

* * *

Ms. Cifuentes said she wanted me to do this every day, each time I was sent here to her. My problem is I got a mouth. I wonder sometimes what it would be like if I was made like my friend Jenny Tenorio. Jenny is all long braids and silence in class.

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Plus, Ms. C said write about the stuff that’s bugging me. So having a big mouth does kind of bug me. It’s just that I can only keep things in for so long when there’s so much stupid going on around me!

I’m not proud of the fact that my Spanish stinks. There, it does. Jenny’s is perfect, and she talks about tortillas and champurrado and enchiladas all with the right pronunciation that would only make me feel awkward trying to say, as awkward as it makes me hearing Jenny say it. Like it’s not embarrassing at all to speak Spanish. Like it’s not a sign of low rent or house cleaners or janitors or shopping at the swap meet.

I’m not knocking janitors or housekeepers or swap meets. My mom works at La Market, and still has time to make us good food. My dad used to be a janitor, before he became a paralegal, before he gave up. That’s what my mom calls it. He gave up on himself, not us, she said. And then she doesn’t talk about him.

That’s a long way of explaining why I am in Spanish class. Or, more precisely, why I am not in Spanish class, but instead here. I am here because I could not stand one more stupid word out of Mr. Torres’s mouth. Not one more idiotic thing! He was talking about the Lizard People, and I was thinking, how does an adult believe something so stupid?

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He’s going on and on and on and then I say, “Do they speak Spanish?”

He shoots me a dirty look, but asks, “What?”

I say it slowly, so he can better understand me: “Do the Lizard People speak Spanish?”

He shrugs as if to say he doesn’t know, then, “Why? Why do you want to know?”

I say, “Because this is a Spanish class and it would be great to learn it here.”

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Another dirty look, then, “Fine. You wanna learn Spanish? Class, pull out a paper and pencil. Thanks to Abigail here, we’re gonna do a pop quiz.”

Groans from the class and now they all want to kill me.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I guess I was confused. I didn’t think enrolling in Spanish 202 was really Lizard People 101.”

Referral to Ms. C.

I have been referred twelve times this semester, seven from Mr. Torres. He probably wants to expel me from his class. That might be the sensible thing to do. But I think that would mean I win. He doesn’t just tell us about Lizard People, but also about his dirt-poor childhood which I know for a fact all of us kids in this class could totally beat. Who’s he trying to impress? Who does he think is going to feel sorry for him?

I don’t feel sorry for him, and I don’t want to hear any of his sad, sad tales of woe. Ms. Cifuentes, on the other hand, looks at you kinda sad, so you know she’s got her own hurt, but she’s not gonna lay her grief on you, a kid. She’s gonna be a real woman and take care of it, and take care of you. That’s right. That’s like my mom. When, as she says, Dad gave up, she cried with us. But she never asked us to make it right. To take care of her. Caro, my little sister, tried to make her coffee or ramen, and Ma just said, “No, baby, that’s my job.”

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Ma sleeps a lot. That seems right to me. Sleeping is the only form of time travel we got. Something bad happens, go to bed. Somehow it hurts just a little less in the morning.

I guess another thing you could do would be to play Animal Crossing. All video games are good for focusing right on what’s in front of you, and forgetting about the shit all around. I mean, it’s like the house disappears, right?

Another thing is movies. But sometime they’re so loud.

Another thing is books. Sometimes a book can make everything disappear. The sleeping mom, the deadbeat dad, the lousy teacher, and the broke-ass school.

These things can make it all disappear, and then it’s almost more painful to come back to the barred windows of real life. Even inside our place the street traffic noise runs 24/7. I can smell the bus’s exhaust, hear the shriek of brakes. The walls of our apartment smell. I think it’s the diesel fumes. Caro and I are good at cleaning, we don’t mind (no, I hate it really, but I don’t mind. Ma shouldn’t have to do everything), but there’s a smell inside the walls we can’t get rid of. Maybe that’s why people go for candles?

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Our old home had a yard. I had a bike I could ride to the corner and back, or in the street in front of our house. The bike disappeared with the move. It doesn’t matter—it’s not like I would ride it anywhere.

It’s just me with Ms. C right now. I guess not many kids get into trouble during first period. I mean, if you’re coming to school for trouble, just hang back, stay home. Kids get to be antsy, moving around right before lunch. I figure everyone’s hungry and bored and that’s a sure recipe for bitching at each other.

Just write it out, Ms. Cifuentes said. Don’t stop, keep writing. I wonder what she would be writing about. Are her eyes sad because of some guy? I hope not. Guys are dopes. Maybe not all guys. My dad was not a dope, he was just at the end of his rope.

Ugh, that’s a terrible rhyme.

* * *

Ms. Cifuentes said my time was up, so I just left. That was last week. That was February. Now we’re in March and I don’t really want to talk about my dad—I don’t care what Ms. C says.

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I’m here again, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m back in the friendly detention area of an empty cafeteria, with, this time, another girl, and the same boys in the back. When do they even go to class? They probably think the same of me, if they ever think of me.

Sherry looked at the composition book Ms. C gave her like it was a dog shit sundae, and then glared at me.

I wasn’t gonna help her out on this one. We’ve been trying to kick each other’s ass since fifth grade—you know how someone looks at you and your teeth get on edge? That’s me and Sherry. I really thought Ms. C was gonna make us talk it out and work it out together and I was gonna have to gag on the insincerity, but today she barely looked at us, at me, and I admit, my feelings were kinda hurt.

But she’s probably got a lot more on her mind than a bunch of stupid kids. Fuck Sherry, she doesn’t even rate, but what about me? Ms. C’s got more important things on her mind than me?

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That makes me stop writing, right there. You get used to certain kinds of disappointment, because you got a little hope in maybe one tiny part of the world . . .

Volleyball season is over. Something about a virus. Annette said they’re probably lying about the whole thing. Thought maybe Ms. Jones got sick of paying for lunches and gas and driving us around, only to lose to golden girls.

But Mrs. Jones isn’t like that at all. She’s got her hair cropped short and kinky, she wears aviator sunglasses even inside the gym, and she doesn’t bad mouth the other teams or ever mention just how pathetic we are. We were. She shows us how to spike, how to block, how to anticipate. She’s big on anticipating your opponent.

So what do you do when your opponent is the next day?

So what do you do when your opponent is the next day?

My mom’s been in bed this past week, and she doesn’t look good. I wanted to stay at home to take care of her, but she made me get Caro ready for school, and she made me go out. We walked the three dirty blocks to school, a couple of kids behind us, a group of kids in front of us, all walking the same way. I could hear them jeering at the woman in short shorts and a sparkly halter top standing outside of Gus’s #1 Tacos. I pointed out the Disney billboards across the street to Caro to distract her. Why do you wanna make fun of some lady who’s just hungry? I wondered if her day was ending or just beginning.

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When I got to English, Sherry talked smack about what I was wearing; it was worse that it was true. I stood up and flipped my desk over at her and that’s when Mrs. Banks sent the two of us here.

Now I’m stuck here glaring at Sherry’s stupid face, with her bad skin and thin lips that look like all they talk is garbage.

* * *

Friday was the last day of school for what the principal said would be three weeks. I should be happy, I should be leaping up and down, dancing, or at least smiling on the inside, but I am not. We’re supposed to, maybe? do our classes online, but I don’t know how that’s gonna play out. I don’t have a laptop, I was hoping to save for one for college. I don’t have a phone, and Ma uses hers as little as possible. She’s probably got the cheapest data plan in the history of the world.

They were giving out Chromebooks before we left. Jenny got hers, I even saw Sherry shoving hers into her shoulder bag. Yeah, what is she gonna use it for? Sell it?

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There was a glitch and I didn’t get one. They said they’d call me, I could pick it up sometime next week. Which is now this week, and I haven’t heard from them.

It’s late Wednesday morning and Caro is happy. She’s sitting at the kitchen counter listening to Bad Bunny and coloring. That’s what she really likes to do. She colors everything. There are pictures of me, her, and Ma taped to the refrigerator, the bedroom door, the front room walls. They used to be me, her, Ma, and Dad, but Ma pulled them down. For a while Caro drew only in black, but now she’s back to giving all three of us brunettes bright and glossy golden-yellow-orange hair. I tried to let her know that brown hair is us, and it’s good! But she just shook her head, smiled, and colored, while the tip of her tongue peeked out the side of her mouth.

I don’t feel good. I don’t feel sick like Ma, who still hasn’t gotten out of her bed so I’ve been the one in charge, making egg burritos or boiling the beans (yeah, I wasted a pound of beans, burned the first pot, and it still stinks in here, that pot was a bitch to clean and I think I’ve still got steel wool under my nails), but I don’t feel happy like Caro. Like I’ve got three weeks of school off. I feel worried.

The biggest reason I feel worried is because Friday, our last day, Ms. Cifuentes found me in my English class and called me out of the room. She handed me this notebook. “Use this,” she said. “I’m telling you, if you write down what’s worrying you, you really will worry about it less.”

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The way she said it, with her eyes all red and puffy like she’d been crying, though she said it was allergies, made my guts flip inside out. Ms. Cifuentes put her hand on my shoulder, which panicked me even more as she’d never touched me before, and said, “Abigail, we’re gonna get through this. Just hang on. One day at a time. And when you feel upset, write about it.”

By then everybody knew about this virus, and Italy, and China. But those countries seem so far away. When Carmela told us her family was going back to Oaxaca I was sad and jealous and mad and I just turned away to go pick up Caro.

Right now we are on lockdown, which means nobody’s supposed to leave their homes except for essentials and essential workers. Ma’s an essential worker, but she can’t leave her bed. Her breathing is terrible. She won’t let us in the room, so I put her food just outside the door. I made her fideo like she told me, and she didn’t eat any of it. She’s big and warm, so she’s not gonna starve to death, she’s got plenty of fat cells to get through first, but still, I’m worried.

On Tuesday she told me to go to the store and buy things. I left Caro to watch TV (that’s her second-favorite thing to do—coloring in front of the TV is probably a peak experience for her. I wish that was all it took to make me happy I’m pretty sure even in third grade I wasn’t like that).

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La Market was crazy! It was terrible! But I didn’t realize as I passed all these people, some with blue face masks, some with scarves around their heads like me, that everyone was waiting in line. For La Market! It wasn’t until I walked to the front of the line and did a double take. What was I gonna do?

The owner, Brenda, who wore a mask that looked like she made it out of paper clips and paper towels, recognized my wild frizzy hair from behind my glasses and scarf. She walked over to me and said, “Your mother called. We got a box of stuff for her already. I’m gonna drop it off later. I told her you didn’t need to come here!”

A coupla hours later, sure enough there was Brenda, with a huge cardboard box at her feet, knocking at our security screen door. “Tell your mother to get better soon,” she said. “Tell her it’s from everyone at work.”

My mom wouldn’t let me into her room, so I talked to her through the bedroom door. I told her there was pinto beans, black beans, rice, oatmeal, canned tuna, noodles, two dozen eggs, bacon pieces, packages of chicken thighs, apple sauce, canned tomatoes, Mexican chocolate, canned spaghetti, canned ravioli, canned tamales, and pudding cups. I put things away; there was so much chicken I put it in different packages, like I’d watched Ma do, and froze them. Caro ate half of the pudding cups that night, nothing I said would stop her; she ate the rest of them Sunday for breakfast and looked kinda green the rest of the day. I heated up the canned ravioli for dinner but it was straight-up disgusting, so that’s when I tried to cook some beans.

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Writing down what I’m worried about, putting it into words, almost makes me feel worse, fills me with a kind of dread, like those stories in English class we read last October by Edgar Allan Poe.

My mom laughed through the door when I told her, and said if I’da been hungry enough the ravioli would’ve tasted just fine.

My mom’s got her phone inside the room with her; it’s not like I can text my friends. I got two people in this whole world to talk to, one is eight and one is sick and maybe that’s why my guts keep going inside out.

I don’t think I can spend my whole day here writing about everything that’s worrying me. As much as I appreciate her ideas, I don’t think Ms. Cifuentes is right about this. Writing down what I’m worried about, putting it into words, almost makes me feel worse, fills me with a kind of dread, like those stories in English class we read last October by Edgar Allan Poe. All heavy and dark, like there’s this mist around me, despite the sun shining out there, despite Caro listening to Taylor Swift. Or maybe like that Stephen King film I watched. It feels like that: like parts of my world are disappearing.

* * *

I wonder if she’s gonna call Dad.

When it was all of us, we lived in a house with a yard. Until we got evicted, which apparently was when my mom found out there was a problem. Caro was crying and my mom was crying and my stomach was tumbling over and over again—I couldn’t cry, I could only glare.

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My dad had a pretty decent job. For all I know he still has that job, a paralegal with a pretty snazzy law office downtown. Before we moved here there were pictures of my mom and dad from the holiday party. Imagine a law firm so fancy they pay for a photographer, and then they print them out and frame them, right there for you! Okay, so the frames were paper, but still.

My mom looked beautiful. She’d bought her dress in the garment district, it was green and shimmery and she moved in it like she was dancing. In the photograph she looks so happy.

My dad looks like he looks in every photo I’ve seen of him with my mom. Hey, I’m with her? How’d I get so lucky? He does. I told that to Ma once and she just snorted.

It was probably because I was thinking of Dad, and whether he’d call or not, or whether she’d call him, that I did what I did. I don’t feel guilty, but I don’t feel good. I wish I hadn’t listened.

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I heard my mom talking on the phone. Caro was watching TV, I was in the kitchen making us a couple of quesadillas, when I heard her voice. Did she need something? Was she calling me? Was she okay?

“Ma?” I said, walking down the hallway. Her plates were outside. She’d finished eating the can of soup I’d heated up for her.

I tapped on the door, “Ma?”

“Hold on,” I heard her say. “What, Abby?”

“Did you need something?”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay.” I stood there a moment and heard her talking to someone. I stepped into the bathroom. From there you can hear practically everything, because of the way the vents work, or the walls are thin or something.

I could hear her talking. Was it to Dad?

“No, Sandra, you don’t understand.” Oh, she was talking to Tía. Tía Sandra lives in Rohnert Park, up north past San Francisco, so we don’t see her and her boys very often. The last time Dad drove us, it seemed to take a week, but a good week. We stopped everywhere. We saw the Golden Gate Bridge. We saw otters and elephant seals and regular seals and redwoods and Monterey pines. We ate clam chowder out of bread bowls. We stayed with Tía and did more things with them all. Thinking of that, when we were all there together, all of us going to Foster Freeze’s for ice cream, made my chest hurt. I didn’t want to think about it. So I listened to my ma.

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“Would you let me talk?” She’d stopped coughing. “Hell yes I’m worried. Why would she bring over all that food if she didn’t think I was gonna die?”

Did she really say that? Did I hear right? Did she really think that?

She continued: “Yeah, I feel like crap. My head hurts like you can’t believe and sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe.” She listened to Tía. “No, how’m I gonna check myself into the hospital and leave my girls? No, I haven’t told the girls about him. No, you can’t come down here. What if you get sick too? No, you can’t—”

I left the bathroom and staggered into the hallway. I went and stood in the kitchen, where I couldn’t hear anything at all. Not my ma, not Caro. I looked at the kitchen sink and began running water. I could wash the dishes, that’s what I could do.

Later Caro began whining that she was bored. I guess even she has a time limit for crayons and television. I pulled out a book I loved in fifth grade. I sat down and she sat on my lap. By the smell of her it was definitely bath time, probably for me too. I began reading Esperanza Rising but after five minutes Caro began to squirm. I get that. No pictures. Next time I’ll pick another book. I told her if she took a bath I’d play cards with her after dinner.

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With the water running you can’t hear anything from the bedroom, but Ma was off the phone anyway. I tapped on the door and opened it. “How you doin’?”

She coughed a long time before she answered me, “I don’t want you in here, Mami. Close the door.” I did. She called after me: “You just put the food by the door, okay? I’ll get it. Don’t come in here, I don’t want you getting sick.”

For dinner I had another quesadilla and Caro ate the leftover canned ravioli. I guess she was hungry enough. We played Fish and I let her win three times, and then I decided it was time for her to go to bed. She argued with me. Of course she argued with me. “If you go to bed when I tell you, you can always have the top bunk.”

Deal. She tapped at Ma’s door and said, “Mommy? G’night!” I heard Ma’s voice answer her.

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When Caro was in bed I cleaned the kitchen like I’ve watched Ma do dozens and dozens of times. I took a bath; the apartment was quiet. I brushed my teeth, I got a clean set of pajamas, then thought, Great, I’m gonna have to figure out how to get us clean clothes sometime. I tried watching TV but it was all so stupid. I watched the news, I heard about the virus, and my guts started churning. I came in here and tried to sleep. Then I heard the very worst thing: there were no traffic noises. Like everything outside had stopped, everywhere.

I heard my mom open her door and head down the hallway to use the bathroom, then go back to her room. I waited. I walked to her room, listened, heard her snoring, and opened the door.

Her phone was next to her.

I gently picked up her phone, and walked softly all the way to our sofa. I tapped in Dad’s number and held my breath. I could explain, he’d come and help us, things would get better. I was so nervous, I dialed a wrong number. I tapped again.

What? That didn’t make sense. Again. This time I made sure of every number and still I couldn’t believe it when the recording told me that the number had been disconnected.

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* * *

I’ve already tried going to sleep once. Caro was asleep above me, I could hear her breathing. I lay down, hugging the mattress. I could hear my heart pounding and pounding. I tried and tried to go to sleep. Nothing. I got up again. Started to write here.

I feel like that time when I was ten, when I stayed up late. Something was gonna happen, I could feel it. And it did happen. That night we had an earthquake that woke everyone up except me, because I was already awake.

I’m just lying here, writing, waiting for the earthquake to arrive.

__________________

“If Found Please Return to Abigail Serna 158 3/4 E MLK Blvd” by Désirée Zamorano, copyright 2022 Désirée Zamorano, from South Central Noir edited by Gary Phillips, used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (info@akashicbooks.com).




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